Random House: 272 pp., $26
Random House: 272 pp., $26
Landscape played a big role in Charles Frazier's bestselling 1997 novel, "Cold Mountain," which was adapted into a movie of the same name. The book, its inside cover lined with a map of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, told of a soldier on a long walk home across the South — the obstacles he encountered along the way made his journey all the more compelling.
Frazier's new book, "Nightwoods," takes place in the hilly landscape of the Appalachians, a vivid place of bent trees, black lakes and resigned mountains with names such as Hog Pen Gap and Picken's Nose. "Nightwoods" is the story of Luce, the caretaker of an abandoned lodge outside of town, who inherits her niece and nephew after her sister is murdered. The children don't speak and have an affinity for burning things, so Luce must wrangle them back into normality while contending with their stepfather, Bud, who is crazed on alcohol and anger and in search of money their mother may have stolen.
Many of the best small details in Frazier's story come from the setting: the bent tree that leads to a mysterious deep hole, the shut-up cabin in the hills that houses a mysterious face, the squash and chickens in the backyard that are Luce's sustenance. Despite — or perhaps because of — the land's remoteness, this is a lawless place, where rapes go unprosecuted and murderers walk free, and the forest secludes Luce and the children from town and relative safety while sustaining them at the same time.
Luce's effort to protect the children could be full of tension and intrigue, but that doesn't become immediately apparent. Much of the first part of Frazier's story is about the landscape — walks through woods and groves of peach trees that "[offer] themselves forward against the uncertain future with grim persistence"; visits to Maddie, an old woman of uncertain age who knows all the ballads about love and war; searches through the henhouse to take and break old eggs. Though the details are vivid, there is a fog hanging over the story. The plot seems frozen, until events take place without explanation, leaving the reader confused about whether an old house has burned down, whether two characters are related, how Bud ends up in a shooting range.
Part of this fog comes from the style of Frazier's writing, which can be descriptive and powerful but incomplete. This is not a book for someone who might chafe at a chapter that begins "Take pinball for example" or one that starts "Pool hall." His full sentences, when he bothers to write them, are much more powerful, such as when he describes a character's feeling that "the week before Labor Day became its own tiny season of gloom, like a hundred Sunday nights crowded together."
As the plot unfolds, we want Luce to break out of her isolation, but the characters in "Nightwoods" seem damaged beyond having any agency at all. Stubblefield, who becomes Luce's suitor, falls into his role because he remembers an image of Luce from decades past. The children are nearly ghosts, wanting nothing but to ride an old pony and fight with each other. Frazier writes that Luce's mother Lola's "only wisdom to her daughters was never cry, never ever. So, in the future, if somebody comes to Luce wanting to know what to carve on Lola's tombstone, those four words would be it." And Luce doesn't seem to love or laugh either. When the children disappear, she does not search for them but retreats to her isolated cabin.
By the time the children are lost with Bud on their tail, it's difficult to care too much about what happens. Even Luce doesn't seem to care. The children's journey through the elements, on the back of a pony, is largely silent as they observe fall arriving in the trees, with its "low sky the color of cold bacon grease." The landscape of the book may be vivid and poetic throughout, but descriptions of beauty alone don't make a novel. In "Nightwoods," the landscape overshadows the humans it's supposed to illuminate.